Chicago Doctors Unveil First Thought-Controlled Bionic Leg

Bionic leg described as "huge milestone" for patients with amputations

Zac Vawter walks so naturally it takes a moment to realize he's using an artificial leg.

That's because this is the world's first thought-controlled bionic leg, an amazing experiment the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago says "represents a significant milestone in the rapidly-growing field of bionics."

After Vawter lost his limb in a motorcycle accident, the Seattle father of two began using a regular prosthesis, the one he still uses every day. The most basic movements, he said, were unnatural, which makes this new technology such a giant step forward.

“The bionic leg responds quickly and more appropriately," Vawter said, "allowing me to interact with my environment in a way that is similar to how I moved before my amputation. For the first time since my injury, the bionic leg allows me to seamlessly walk up and down stairs and even reposition the prosthetic by thinking about the movement I want to perform."

Dozens of pioneering experts teamed up to make it happen. Dr. Levi Hargrove, lead scientist of this research at RIC’s Center for Bionic Medicine, said he developed a system to use neural signals to safely improve limb control of a bionic leg.

Hargrove said an incredibly smart, tiny computer on the leg listens to the electricity in Vawter's muscles, allowing him to move like everyone else.

“This new bionic leg features incredibly intelligent engineering,” Hargrove said. “It learns and performs activities unprecedented for any leg amputee, including seamless transitions between sitting, walking, ascending and descending stairs and ramps and repositioning the leg while seated.”

Dr. Hargrove said they essentially rewired the nerves Vawter would have used if he still had his real leg, attaching them to a different set of muscles. When he thinks "walk up the stairs," the leg instantly responds.

"This is a huge milestone for me and for all leg amputees,” Vawter said.

Right now this is a first, but there's hope that the bionic technology could be commercially available in three to five years.

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